Considering that my blog consists of articles on religion and politics, I think it is only fitting to celebrate my 50th post by asking, “Is there and should there be separation of Church and State?”
Generally, the majority of people will agree that separation of Church and State does in fact exist and that it should exist in some way. The problem arises when an event, like school prayers, or an object, like the Ten Commandments at the courthouse, has been called into question of whether or not it has unconstitutionally bridged the gap between the two. The result is often a fierce and divisive debate between the Christian Right and the Secular Left with each portraying the other as the destroyer of liberty. Fox News will typically side with the Christian Right and telling its viewers that the other news networks are not giving this a second thought because they’re biased and Fox News isn’t. MSNBC, CNN, and the rest reply by giving it a short segment in their brief news report for the day and say something to the effect of, “The Christian Right is wrong and maybe stupid. Everyone who’s anyone knows this. Therefore the Secular Left must be right.” And in the end nothing gets done except widening the divide in an already polarized population.
So who is right? Should school prayers be allowed? Can the Ten Commandments be placed at the court house? Can we say, “One nation under God”? Or do we need to remove any and all images and references to religion from the public square and our government? Personally, I think the answer lies in what was originally meant by the phrase “separation of Church and State.”
In January 1802, Thomas Jefferson finished his correspondence to a small group of Baptists in Connecticut. These Christians were concerned that their religious freedoms were merely “favors granted” by the government and “not as inalienable rights.” Their hope was that the President would reassure them that the power of public office would be free of corruption and abuse by those who would use it to advance their own religious beliefs or personal ambitions. This was an understandable fear since as far back as colonial rule, Christian denominations and sects who enjoyed having a majority following would establish membership in their churches as the primary means to seek and receive a public office. An example of this would be Massachusetts which made Puritanism for a time the official church of the colony. Those with minority beliefs were either unable or hard pressed to express their voices politically.
Thomas Jefferson saw this as a political opportunity. The Federalists, the opposition party to Jefferson’s Republican-Democratic Party, were known to propose and execute days of thanksgiving and fasting depending on whether the county had received a victory or was perceived to be in peril (loc.gov). Here was his chance to both publicly refute them and to explain why he abstained during his time in office making proclamations for thanksgivings like Washington and Adams (loc.gov). The Federalists had use this, and other actions, as proof that Jefferson was an atheist and ultimately an immoral person. No doubt Jefferson took much of this personally and felt the Danbury Baptists had provided him a way to vindicate himself.
After much consultation with Connecticut officials and revisions, Jefferson finally sent his response on January 1st, 1802. He assured the Baptists that he did not consider his office as means to correct Americans on their theology. Instead he declared that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God” and that he was in agreement with the 1st Amendment which he felt built “a wall of separation of church and state” (loc.gov). He then continues that this is a defense for rights of conscience which fits in perfectly with his view that matters of faith concern only the individual and his God. (I wonder if the anti-Hobby Lobby people ever considered this part of Jefferson’s letter?)
So what do we take from this? Jefferson, the person who coined the infamous phrase “separation of Church and State,” did not mean that religion should be utterly divorced and separated from the public square or in our government. After all, two days after Jefferson wrote his reply to the Danbury Baptists he attended a worship service in the House of Representatives. I suppose you could say this is just an example of Jefferson being a hypocrite or unable to make up his mind; however, considering the time he took to write and re-write this letter as well as what was happening when he did, I doubt he was anything but sincere and honest in his response.
So how does this answer our questions above? Well, I think we have to ask ourselves what the intent is. When it comes to the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, I have to ask if the purpose is to enforce the commandments against idolatry and to observe the Sabbath? Or, as I believe was the original intent, was it to remind the people, the lawyers, and the judges the historical origins of our laws and that the law has its origins above and beyond the will of individuals? (Remember it was not Moses who wrote up the Ten Commandments, but God. And it was not the government which bestowed individuals inalienable rights according to Jefferson, but “by their Creator.”) If we say yes to the former, then I would agree that the Ten Commandments need to be removed as we are no longer a nation inhabited primarily by Christians who faithfully profess and practice their religion. Plus it would require us to say what is suitable for another person’s conscience. However, if we say yes to the latter then we have nothing to worry about.
“But what about those of us who don’t share Judeo-Christian values? Isn’t that breaching our rights of conscience by subjecting us to laws that have their origins in the bloody and dark Old Testament?” To this I say, “Would you prefer Sharia law? Or trial by combat as used in Medieval Europe?” But seriously, if someone feels that their views are not being adequately represented in the court of law or in the courthouse, let him or her request that a symbol of equal meaning be placed there are well. I wouldn’t mind if something resembling the Twelve Tables of Rome, Hammurabi’s code, etc. were setup in the courthouse because they also contributed to our law system and show the need for nations to have law and order. If you’re denied, ask why. If it is because your symbols are not Christian, then yes bring the matter to court. This is a nation for all citizens of all beliefs, not just for some.
How about school prayers? I have to agree with the secularists on this one and say, “No.” Unless the school is by nature religious, its purpose is not to teach matters of faith but academics. If Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. parents want their children to pray during school hours and learn the tenets of their faith, they have the authority to establish school systems that allow it. And if a teacher wishes to make a comment concerning his or her faith in regard to a particular subject, they should be allowed to as long as the teacher states that is his or her opinion and not material to be on a test. In this way the teacher has expressed faith does not require that students uphold it. See the pattern?
The purpose of Jefferson’s “wall of Church and State” wasn’t to make an unequivocal division between religion and politics. Rather the purpose was to protect the religious and, by implication, the non-religious rights guaranteed in the 1st Amendment. I agree many people take this too far and try to remove God entirely, even if they are correct in some cases. However I think as a nation we need to stop acting like children and take responsibility of our own lives and beliefs. Our faith is not based on whether the Ten Commandments are present in our courthouses. And our country will not crumble and burn if they remain there. There is separation of Church and State in this country and it isn’t a bad thing. However, completely separating the two isn’t always a good thing either. Just use some common sense.
For a copy of the Danbury Baptist and Jefferson letters, click the following links:
For a commentary and brief history of Jefferson’s letter, click here.
For a copy of the Declaration of Independence, click here.